This is an edited version of the analysis that was previously posted on keerdo.wordpress.com.
When Harry Met Sally (1989)
Written by Nora Ephron
Even though it’s not one scene but a sequence, I’ll treat it as one continuous event. It’s one conversation broken up in order to have variation and avoid having talking heads on the screen for too long. I’ll be looking at different types of elements in the scene: how character is revealed, exposition through character, foreshadowing, and humour (as it is a rom-com). The action in the sequence is Harry and Sally driving to New York and this action doesn’t change (there are no obstacles in the way of driving or getting to New York). So the structure of the scene is not based on the action in it but on characters and their relationship. The dramatic question of the scene is not ‘will they get to New York?’ but ‘will they become friends?’ The answer is “no”.
Notice how the sequence is loaded with conflict. This a rom-com and this is the couple it’s about, yet they don’t agree about anything and they do everything in a different way – that’s conflict, and that will sustain tension in the story and keep the viewer engaged. Everything they do and say lead towards the “no” answer of the dramatic question.
The sequence can be divided into four parts. In the first part, we find out what’s happening (the action/activity) and a glimpse into character traits. This is the beginning of the film, so the characters don’t know each other nor does the audience know who they are and what this is all about. As the characters get to know each other the audience gets to know them as well and finds out what’s happening in their lives, what their status quo is. In the second part we get a closer look as they start talking about their plans for the future which leads to a big debate about each other’s dark sides, establishing their relationship – they don’t approve of each other’s attitude, which is an obstacle to becoming friends/lovers. In the third part, they get quite personal – considering they’ve only met just recently, they’re already discussing Sally’s sex life, which is adds humour to the sequence. While having the debate, they are actually revealing their attitude towards romantic relationships which will affect the story later on.
Summary of scenes 4-12 : Harry and Sally have just met through a mutual friend and in this sequence they travel together to New York in a car while getting to know each other.
The scene starts by revealing character: Sally has planned the whole trip while Harry hasn’t given it any thought (reveals character, exposition of action, and conflict – they are each other’s opposite). Harry starts eating grapes in the car, trying to throw a seed out of a closed window (humour) while Sally announces a moment later that she doesn’t eat between meals (reveals character). Both hope that it’s not going to be an awkward trip with long silences which is followed by a long silence (humour).
Comments: exposition through character – the audience finds out where they are going and how long it will take through Sally’s detailed plans and the fear of sitting in awkward silence of both. Notice how every exchange and every action is part of conflict – not agreeing, having a different attitude or opinion – which creates tension.
Very quickly, two opposing characters are revealed: Sally is organised, likes to plan things ahead down to last detail. Harry is spontaneous and unorganised. Revealing character doesn’t end with the introduction: what Sally later says about Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca applies to her – she is practical. Later Harry tells the waiter “surprise me” when ordering a meal while Sally goes through a long dizzying list of what she wants and how she wants it.
In the set-up of the story, we are introduced to two contrasting characters, and during the rest of the story we’re going to watch them interact and clash. The conflict in the story comes from character; if they’d agree on everything, there would be no story. The dramatic question of the film is “Will they end up together?” and during the story the answer to that question is delayed as long as possible while taking as different directions where it would seem impossible.
2. A Closer look
Harry then asks Sally to tell the story of her life to kill time. Sally thinks nothing significant has happened in her life yet; she’s going to study journalism. Harry doesn’t know what he’s going to do in New York or whether he’s going to be a lawyer or not (character and exposition).
Harry comes out with an elaborate pessimistic option for Sally’s future (humour). They talk about Harry’s dark side as Harry makes a sarcastic assumption about Sally (“You’re probably one of those cheerful people who dots her “i’s” with little hearts.”) and goes on to demonstrate his own dark side. When Sally finds out Harry might become a lawyer, her remark ends this part of the scene with a punch line, summing up his profession and pessimism – she tells him he should be the kind of lawyer who does wills – he’ll be good at explaining to people they’re going to die (humour).
Comments: Also, now that we know that they are going to New York, here we find out why they are going and what they plan to do there. The way the story is told, it does not focus on their careers – the story is not about ‘will they succeed in their professions?’ but about their relationship, so the conversation develops quickly to reveal more about the characters and establish a relationship between the two. Harry makes assumptions, mocks Sally and Sally becomes defensive. It becomes questionable whether they could ever get along.
3. Getting personal
There’s a break in the scene as they stop to swap seats and drive towards a diner. They argue over Casablanca: Sally defends Ilse’s decision while Harry thinks Rick wanted to get rid of her (character and foreshadowing).
We learn that Sally would rather have an exciting life than an exciting man while Harry thinks sex is more important. Sally claims that women are practical makes Harry come up with another assumption – that Sally hasn’t had any great sex, followed by further questions and mockery (humour). In the diner Harry continues pestering her until he finds out how Sally broke up with her boyfriend – because of the Days of the Week underpants (humour and character – even her underwear is planned).
When they finish their meal, Harry pays a compliment to Sally which brings up another problem. Harry shouldn’t come on to her because he’s seeing Sally’s friend. The argument has several moments of humour (“Empirically you’re attractive.” And calling the cops because the compliment is “already out there”.) At the end of this debate, as they get back to their car, they agree to be friends.
Comments: Harry’s attitude is revealed as he talks about Casablanca and foreshadows something that we’ll see later on in the story – Harry wants to leave as quickly as possible after sleeping with a woman, which will also intensify the conflict between Harry and Sally when the two of them sleep together. Again, Sally has everything figured out and Harry mocks her (“You’d rather have a passionless marriage…“). The end of this part has a ‘false resolution’ as they agree to become friends. The dramatic question of the scene seems to be answered but will there be proof?
4. Not friends
In the car, Harry states that they can’t be friends because men and women can’t be friends without sex getting in the way. They agree and decide they won’t be friends; Sally’s remark ends the scene with a punch line (humour).
They arrive in New York, wish each other a good life and go their separate ways to meet five years later.
Comments: The dramatic question of the scene is answered – no, they won’t be friends (the first thing they agree on). This is part of foreshadowing as later on they will become something more than friends.
The conversation has evolved from introductions to future plans to a debate on intimate relationships and now beyond Harry and Sally: at the end, it’s about the nature of men and women in general. The thesis of the story is: can men and women be friends without sex getting in the way? and this theme is explored in the story through different situations.
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